So you really want to study languages at Oxbridge?


Oxbridge languages admissions tests.

Whether you are applying to study modern languages at the University of Oxford or Cambridge, you will need to sit an admissions assessment regardless. The main differences between the two institutions are the structure of the two written tests and when exactly they are sat in the Oxbridge application process. Below we seek to clarify any confusion you may have and include top tips for preparation. Vámonos…

What is the Oxford MLAT test and how to prepare?

The MLAT (Modern Languages Admissions Test) is a written exam used by the University of Oxford as part of their admissions test for any prospective students wishing to read Modern Languages or a combination of Modern Languages and Linguistics, Classics, English, History, Philosophy or European and Middle Eastern Languages.

What does the test involve?

Any applicants wishing to study French, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Czech or Modern Greek who do so at A Level or equivalent already will sit an individual exam for that language, which lasts 30 minutes. For any applicants looking to study an additional language ab initio or Russian single honours, they will also have to do a 30 minute generalised LAT (Languages Aptitude Test).

Although the content of the MLAT varies year on year, the core objectives remain the same:

  • Language-specific papers for applicants who study the subject already aim to test knowledge of basic language structures rather than vocabulary specifically. They may also include gap-fill exercises and translation from the target language into English and/or vice versa.
  • The LAT seeks to gauge individual ability in analysing how languages work so that the university can assess applicants’ aptitude for learning a new language from scratch. This task involves a made-up language that bears no relation to any particular language the student may have studied before.

The assessment will be sat at school, college or an examination centre in November before the interview stage, as a means of sorting out those who already have outstanding personal statements and references and are on-track to achieve stellar exam grades. Oxford also uses the test to consider candidates from around the world who do not sit the same exam qualifications as UK students but who have taken the same entrance assessment.

Candidates are not ranked according to their MLAT results as such, but rather their results are taken into account alongside all other evidence they have submitted as part of their application. Furthermore, there is no mark threshold students have to reach in order to be put through to the final round.

How to prepare?

  • GRAMMAR: students should revise grammar structures in the target language(s) used at A Level or equivalent and be familiar with any ‘exceptions to the rule’, which are likely to be tested during the MLAT to catch applicants out. Analysing grammar structures in depth will also benefit students sitting the LAT as approaching the artificial language from a grammatical point of view will help them dissect what function each word has within the phrase. 
  • VOCABULARY: as much as the MLAT is not a vocabulary test, markers will expect students to be familiar with vocabulary of a register and subject used at A Level or equivalent as well as common words in the target language.
  • TRANSLATION: practising translation between the target language(s) and English will also prove beneficial. Students should be careful when undertaking the MLAT translation task(s) to translate every part of the phrase, but not to translate the entire sentence word for word (literal translation).
  • PAST PAPERS: sitting past papers is the best way to familiarise yourself with the written exam, these can be found on the University of Oxford website here.
  • FURTHER STUDY: students can also be encouraged to read newspapers and literature in the target language, as well as listening to the radio and podcasts, in order to help familiarise them with linguistic patterns and to pick up new vocabulary. Even watching foreign TV with the language subtitles on can help accustom them to the target language structures.

What is the Cambridge Modern Languages assessment test and how to prepare?

The MMLAA (Modern and Medieval Languages Admissions Assessment) is a written exam used by the University of Cambridge as part of the admissions process for any prospective students wishing to read Modern Languages or Modern Languages as part of a dual honours degree.

What does the test involve?

The Cambridge languages assessment is based on a short text in English and involves both a discursive response in the chosen target language, which lasts 40 minutes, as well as a discursive response in English, which lasts 20 minutes. There are twice as many marks for the former discursive response as there are for the latter, and the tests typically draw upon both summary and comprehension tasks. If you have applied to study two languages which you already take at A Level or equivalent, you can choose which language to respond in for the first part of the assessment.

Unlike the Oxford MLAT, the Cambridge MMLAA does not include any gap-fill exercises, verb conjugation tests or translation tasks. Rather, it aims to see how well applicants can express themselves in (one of) their chosen language(s). That being said, grammatical accuracy should still be of a high standard. Marks are awarded to students who attempt complexity and range in their written work: those who attempt more advanced linguistic structures and vocabulary but get them slightly wrong are more likely to impress than those who play it safe with entirely correct but repetitive, short sentences.

Applicants will sit the test on the same day and at the same college as their interview at Cambridge. Like Oxford, the results of the assessment are not viewed in isolation but taken into consideration alongside all elements of the student’s application to the university.

How to prepare?

  • GRAMMAR: students should be familiar with complex grammar structures used at A Level or equivalent. Being ready to deploy these alongside simpler phrases in their written work will show great adeptness at transitioning seamlessly between shorter, punchier sentences for effect and longer structures to show off.
  • VOCABULARY: similarly to the above grammar recommendation, the assessment markers will expect you to be familiar with common words in the target language and those used at A Level or equivalent; the use of sophisticated but concise vocabulary is a sure-fire way to stand out from your peers within the 250 word count limit.
  • PAST PAPERS: familiarising yourself with the assessment format is one of the best ways to prepare yourself for the exam, specimen papers can be found on the University of Cambridge website here.
  • FURTHER STUDY: applicants should read widely in the target language. Anything from classical literature to news bulletins are sure to expose students to a variety of nuanced language registers and specific vocabulary their A Level courses or equivalent may not cover.

Bonne chance à tous!

Article by Ingrid Clover at Bonas MacFarlane
Call Ingrid with further questions on +44 (0) 20 3744 5535